WASHINGTON – Oh, Wilbur.
President Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, has a big problem: He is apparently not a billionaire.
Forbes magazine, keeper of the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, reports that it dropped Ross from its list this year because of a “phantom $2 billion” that Ross claimed he had but apparently does not exist. Instead of the $3.7 billion Ross claimed he was worth (Forbes last year put it at $2.9 billion), his financial disclosures showed – gasp – less than $700 million in assets.
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Most Americans, upon being told they were worth “only” $700 million, would say: Please don’t throw me into that briar patch! But Ross was disgraced, and mad. He claimed to Forbes that he transferred $2 billion into trusts for his children and others but offered no proof, and this claim was contradicted by his own staff.
Forbes performed some forensics and concluded that Ross has been lying for years about his wealth. As for the missing $2 billion, Forbes reports:
“Forbes is confident it has found the answer: That money never existed. It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004. In addition to just padding his ego, Ross’ machinations helped bolster his standing in a way that translated into business opportunities. And based on our interviews with 10 former employees at Ross’ private equity firm, WL Ross & Co., who all confirmed parts of the same story line, his penchant for misleading extended to colleagues and investors, resulting in millions of dollars in fines, tens of millions refunded to backers and numerous lawsuits.”
It was a beautiful business model: If he appeared to be richer than he was, more rich people gave him their money to invest. Rich people like rich people. But now, at a paltry $700 million, he’s a nobody.
I empathize with Ross. Each year I tell People magazine that I should be featured in its Sexiest Man Alive issue. I explain that my biceps and pecs are much larger than they appear because I have transferred several inches into a trust for my children. But I never make the cover.
Ross has a problem I do not have, however. He is in Trump’s Cabinet because he is a putative billionaire, and Trump respects only billionaires and generals. He fired Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price for hiring private jets on the taxpayer’s dime, but there was suspicion that the real cause for his dismissal was his inability to afford his own private jet. He sacked Anthony Scaramucci after a profanity-laced tirade, but perhaps the real reason is he learned the Mooch was worth only about $50 million.
It probably won’t help that news of Ross’ missing $2 billion comes just after the discovery from leaked documents that he invested some of the precious millions he does have in a venture with people very close to Vladimir Putin.
Forbes’ Dan Alexander reports that Ross has been conniving for 13 years to inflate his wealth in the Forbes tally, which was based on an error – counting all of his investors’ money as his own. The listing reportedly serves as an attractant to Ross’ third wife.
Starting to sound a bit familiar? Well, consider that Ross’ former colleagues also told Forbes that Ross bends the truth. Yes, he has much in common with a certain orange person who Forbes dropped 92 spots on the Forbes 400 last month. Trump, at $3.1 billion, insists he is worth more but refuses to prove it.
The two truth-challenged men have been pals since at least 1990, when they worked out a deal for Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, which was “careening toward bankruptcy,” Forbes reports. Surely these two men, both skilled in illusion and deception, can together come up with a better explanation for what happened to Ross’ $2 billion.
He bought 2 billion rolls of very good paper towels for Puerto Rico?
He used it to hire tutors for Donald Trump Jr.?
He paid for Omarosa Manigault’s bridal party at the White House?
He donated it to all the veterans charities Trump promised to support?
He spent it at the bar at the Trump International in Washington?
Heck, Ross would even be better off claiming he lost all $2 billion on a failed business deal with Putin.
In Trump world, it is better to have been a billionaire and lost than never to have been a billionaire at all.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.